10 Common Symbols in Still-Life Paintings & What They Mean

From flowers to seashells, decoding the symbols in still-life paintings can reveal a hidden world of deeper meaning.

Mar 21, 2021By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
still life paintings
Detail of Still Life with Silver by Alexandre François Desportes, c. 1715-23


“Still life” refers to a work of art that depicts a grouping of inanimate, usually commonplace objects. Traditionally, still life paintings also tend to be full of disguised symbolism—a pictorial language that uses an ordinary object to convey a deeper meaning. The most famous examples of still life are the immaculately detailed and richly symbolic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, but still life paintings date back to ancient Rome and remain a popular genre in the twenty-first century. These are ten of the objects commonly found in still-life paintings throughout history and what they symbolize.


1. Fruit: Varying Symbolism In Still Life Paintings

fruit bowl with flowers
Fruit bowl with flowers by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, first half of 17th century, in the National Museum in Poznan, Poland


Fruits are some of the most ubiquitous subjects in still-life paintings over the centuries. Not only does a basket of fruit offer the artist a variety of colors and textures to utilize, but it also offers a variety of religious and mythical symbols. For example, in Christianity, apples signify temptation and knowledge in reference to the Old Testament account of Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Grapes symbolize the themes of pleasure and lust associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Pomegranates are associated with Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring and queen of the underworld.


caravaggio basket fruit
Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1599, via Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan


Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio’s still life painting depicts an ordinary basket of fruit, which is thrust dramatically into the foreground of the composition with extreme realism. Close examination reveals that some of the fruit is rotting and being eaten by worms, which may subtly reveal the artist’s feelings about the ongoing Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation in Italy.


2. Skulls: The Certainty Of Mortality 

still life skull paul cezanne
Still Life with Skull by Paul Cézanne, 1890-93, via the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


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Made famous by Dutch and Flemish artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, vanitas still-life paintings express the transience of life and the futility of materialism. This tradition also provided a justification for painting beautiful and expensive objects instead of more overtly moralizing subjects. One of the more heavy-handed symbols that appears in vanitas still life paintings is the skull, which is a striking reminder of the certainty of death. Such a symbol is called a Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember that you will die.”


The early Modern painter Paul Cézanne was known for experimenting with shape, color, and perspective in his still-life paintings. He began incorporating skulls into his compositions during the last decade of his life, perhaps indicating an increasing awareness of his own mortality. In this example, the contrast between the lifeless skull and the arrangement of vibrant ripe fruits is distinct and haunting.


3. Candles: The Passing Of Time

still life bible vincent van gogh
Still Life with Bible by Vincent van Gogh, 1885, via the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Another common component of vanitas still life paintings, candles represent the inevitability of the passing of time—the longer they burn, the smaller they get until there is nothing left. A lit candle symbolizes light, truth, and knowledge. An extinguished candle symbolizes loss and death. In Christianity, a brightly burning candle indicates faith in God or the light of Christ. Oil lamps or other recognizable sources of light are sometimes used in still life paintings to convey these same meanings.


Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionist Still Life with Bible is simpler and gloomier than his more famous works. Van Gogh painted it shortly before the death of his father, who was a Protestant minister. The painting depicts an extinguished candle, a bible that belonged to his father, and a modern secular book. Alongside the two juxtaposed books, the candle may allude to the fact that van Gogh had tried and failed to become a minister like his father, or it may refer to his father’s impending death.


4. Flowers: Symbols Of Life And Growth 

still life flowers rachel ruysch
Still-Life with Flowers by Rachel Ruysch, c. 1750s, via Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm


A beautiful bouquet of flowers in full bloom can signify life, faith, growth, and power. Wilting flowers, on the other hand, serve as grim reminders that life, material goods, and beauty are fragile. Specific flowers also have more specific meanings. For example, poisonous nightshade symbolizes danger or deception, daisies symbolize innocence, poppies symbolize sleep or death, and a red rose symbolizes love and seduction. In the context of Christianity, a red rose represents the atoning blood shed by Jesus Christ, while a white lily is associated with purity and the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception.


Rachel Ruysch was a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age who gained international fame for her elaborate and microscopically detailed still-life paintings of flowers. Ruysch deliberately painted combinations of flowers that, in reality, could not all bloom in the same season. This is because every Ruysch bouquet was carefully crafted to reveal a breadth of knowledge, whether that be conveyed in the specific types of flowers or their state of bloom.


5. Seashells: Birth, Purity, And Fertility 

still life fish sea food flowers
Still Life with Fish, Sea Food and Flowers by Clara Peeters, c. 1612-15, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


In addition to being associated with femininity, seashells can symbolize birth and good fortune. In Christianity, seashells also symbolize baptism and resurrection. Scallop shells are specifically associated with St. James, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, and the concept of pilgrimage. Oysters were especially popular in still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age and were not considered a luxury food at the time. Like other shells, they symbolize birth and fertility. Pearls, which are produced by oysters, are symbols of purity and perfection. When hidden between the oyster’s shells, the pearl represents hidden knowledge and awareness.


This still life painting by Clara Peeters with oysters and seashells in the foreground is one of many existing seventeenth-century compositions of banquet spreads. Viewers of such paintings could simultaneously delight in the deliciousness of the feast and ponder the moral or religious messages that each menu item symbolizes.


6. Mirrors: The Soul In Reflection 

mirror roy lichtenstein
Still Life with Mirror by Roy Lichtenstein, 1972, via the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville


In ancient times, it was believed that a person’s soul was contained in their reflection. Mirrors have been included in a variety of paintings throughout history. They can represent either truth and self-assurance or vanity and distortion—the difference depends on who is looking at their reflection. A broken mirror is universally recognized as a bad omen. For a talented artist, glass objects and surfaces presented an opportunity to skillfully render the complex visual effects of transparency and reflection. Additionally, as mirrors were once prohibitively expensive for most people, patrons of still-life paintings may have wanted to show off their wealth.


Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Mirror explores a centuries-old tradition through a late-nineteenth-century Pop Art lens. The objects in Lichtenstein’s still life painting, including a mirror and a basket of fruit, are traditional symbols that viewers are invited to consider within the contemporary context of mass media and pop culture phenomena.


7. Insects: Transformation And Decay 

still life with flowers
Still Life with Flowers, Fruit, Shells, and Insects by Balthasar van der Ast, c. 1629, via Birmingham Museum of Art


Insects are often integrated into still-life paintings of flowers and food, including vanitas paintings. As a group, insects symbolize greed or decay, but specific types of insects have their own associations. Butterflies represent transformation and, in Christianity, resurrection. Dragonflies are a foil to the butterfly, representing worldliness and death and often depicted preying on smaller insects. During the early Renaissance era, snails were associated with the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception as it was believed that snails reproduced asexually.


In this Dutch Golden Age still-life painting by Balthasar van der Ast, a variety of tiny insects appear throughout the composition. Although their inclusion and placement may appear happenstance, it is actually very deliberate. Each insect draws attention to the impending decay of the fruit and flowers, which, due to the infestation, is already underway. The inevitability of decay and death is further emphasized by the overturned basket and the dragonfly ominously hovering over the scene.


8. Musical Instruments: Beauty And Transience 

mandolin and guitar pablo picasso
Mandolin and Guitar by Pablo Picasso, 1924, via the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City


Musical instruments were considered luxury items for many centuries. While they were often included in still life paintings to show off the wealth of talent of a patron, musical instruments could also carry deeper meaning. In general, music represents leisure or celebration. In a vanitas still life painting, a violin can remind viewers of the threads of time and the fact that all beautiful things must come to an end. Violin strings that are snapped or missing can indicate discord or death. Flutes have long been associated with the intoxication of Bacchus as well as the sins of lust and laziness. The curving shapes of many instruments, such as the guitar, parallel the organic and seductive shapes of the human body.


Pablo Picasso’s cubist Mandolin and Guitar boldly ignores most of the conventions of still life painting and its traditional iconography. However, it is still worth considering the symbolism behind Picasso’s stringed instruments—they may represent the noise of modern life or the transience of the rapidly evolving world of twentieth-century art.


9. Dead Animals: Contradiction And The Hunt 

still life juan sanchez cotan
Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit by Juan Sánchez Cotán, 1602, via Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid


Paintings of dead animals became a very popular sub-genre of still life painting in the seventeenth century—a fact that often baffles viewers in the twenty-first century. During the Dutch Golden Age, hunting for sport became less exclusive to the wealthy, and international trade became more abundant. As a result, still life paintings of highly detailed hunting trophies and exotic animal carcasses were in very high demand and fit in with other iterations of the vanitas tradition. When depicted alongside other food items, dead animals could also represent the culinary specialties of a certain region or patron.


This early-seventeenth-century Spanish bodegón, or arrangement of food, by Juan Sánchez Cotán uses dead game to showcase humanity’s conflicting proclivities for the macabre and the beautiful. Such paintings may also represent the pleasure and satisfaction of the hunt, the allure of procuring goods, or the tenuous relationship between humans and nature.


10. Silver And Gold: Luxury In Still Life Paintings

still life with silver
Still Life with Silver by Alexandre François Desportes, c. 1715-23, via the Met Museum, New York


The inclusion of precious metals in still-life paintings may showcase an artist’s skill at accurately depicting reflective textures or a patron’s collection of expensive objects. In a vanitas still life painting, gold and silver finery may heighten the tension between materialism and morality. In religious contexts, gold can indicate that something is precious, sacred, or durable. Like a mirror, silver can be reflective of a person’s soul for positive or negative reasons. Gold and silver objects in still life paintings may also have nationalistic significance, either representing the specialties of a person’s homeland or showing off their cultural experience with international trade and travel.


The late Baroque era Still Life with Silver by Alexandre François Desportes is a richly detailed composition of luxury items that belonged to the owner of the painting. Desportes was frequently commissioned by royals and elites to paint decorative still life records of their vast collections of objects, emphasizing the patrons’ wealth and decidedly French taste.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.